Yesterday, the New York Times launched a beta version of Times People, a lightweight social networking feature that allows readers to connect around NYT content.  Currently, Times People can only be used as a plugin in Firefox (this will change soon) and functions as a social bookmarking tool similar to or MentoCNET’s The Social has a good overview of Times People, complete with a video interview with the folks at the Times that created the tool.  Mathew Ingram, Mashable Silicon Valley Insider and DigiDave all have good reviews up as well.

When I try out tools like this, my first instinct is to figure out if it is something I will be using on a regular basis.  With Times People, the answer is clearly no.  Although I visit a few times a week, I am not really actively engaged with the site.  I’ve never left a comment.  I’ve never explored the restaurant and theater reviews.  I don’t live in New York.  I basically drop in on the Times site to get the paper’s take on the “story of the day” or when someone links to the site.  In summary, I’m not the target audience for Times People.  The tool is clearly aimed at people who have a stronger relationship with the Times brand than I do.

I think Times People has the ability to grow into a very useful for people who do have that relationship.

Some have criticized the tool for being too limited in focus.  I think its modesty is actually its greatest strength.  Times People is trying to complement the way readers are already using the site, not change the behavior.  That’s smart.

Let me explain.

Sites for newspapers like USA Today have full bore social networks built right in.  Users can set up full profiles, upload pictures, maintain a blog, friend other users, etc.  They function like a mini version of MySpace or Facebook. It just feels like too much. There are many, many better platforms for maintaining blogs, sharing photos, etc.  Why would anyone want to do all of this stuff on the USA Today website?  I’m left thinking about the old cliche that the decision about what to leave out is just as important as what you leave in.

Times People recognizes that the New York Times brand is its content.  Instead of trying to shift activities like blogging and photo sharing to its website, the Times is adding social features that complement activities readers are already performing – leaving comments, reading stories and writing reviews.  The focused nature of the tool also allows it to evolve organically as the Times reviews how people are actually using it.  This is how the best websites always approach thing.

I have no idea whether Times People will be a success or not. But for experimental features like these, I think starting small and taking an iterative approach is always a good thing.

About the Author
Todd Zeigler
Todd Zeigler serves as the Brick Factory’s chief strategist and oversees the operations of the firm. In his sixteen year career in digital, he has planned and implemented campaigns for clients including the Pickens Plan, International Youth Foundation, Panthera, Edison Electric Institute, and the American Chemistry Council. Todd develops ambitious online advocacy programs, manages crises, implements online marketing strategies, and develops custom applications and software. He is bad at golf though.